Car chases, secret meetings and Fergie's phone calls: How Roy Keane's Ireland return was secured
I am sitting in the passenger seat of my friend’s car in pursuit of Roy Keane. It’s February 5, 2003. Eight days earlier, I’d been appointed manager of the Republic of Ireland, the fulfilment of a lifelong dream. And now I’m dealing with a strange kind of reality.
As my friend Eamon keeps on the tail of Roy’s car, I look out of the window at the other traffic on the M6 and wonder where this journey is going to take us to. And I’m not the only one.
The original venue, where we were scheduled to meet, was dotted with press and photographers, prompting this hurried diversion around the outskirts of Manchester to a small hotel that Keane knows well.
If all this sounds a little dramatic, then Roy’s disappearance down a residential lane, and sudden U-turn in the driveway of a tidy suburban house, only added to the intrigue. Minutes later, after we finally reached our destination, we greet one another in a hotel car park, when, with a smile, he says: “I did my best to shake you off back there.”
Read more: Roy Keane: You are not therapists to me
He’s worth chasing after, though. Captain of Manchester United, he remains one of the greatest players in the world and someone that I, as Ireland manager, want to have in my team.
Others share that view. In the process to become manager, I meet Bryan Hamilton, the former Northern Ireland manager, who the FAI had recruited as a consultant to draw up a shortlist of prospective candidates to replace Mick McCarthy. As we talk, Roy’s name is mentioned. “Have you a plan to get him back?” I’m asked. Later, the same question is thrown at me during my formal interview with the FAI’s John Delaney, Milo Corcoran and Kevin Fahey. This, clearly, is a big deal.
Yet as we chat away for over four hours in this tiny boardroom in this out-of-the-way hotel on this February afternoon, it doesn’t seem that big a deal at all. All issues — from Saipan to the FAI — are on the table but Roy is relaxed talking about them, indicating he wants to come back and agreeing, later that week, to come up to Kilmarnock, where we were staying ahead of our friendly with Scotland.
This is Wednesday. By Friday, Alex Ferguson calls. The state of Roy’s hip — which had been recently operated on — was mentioned. Manchester United clearly want to protect their interests. Yet because my meeting with Roy had went so well, I was still hopeful he’d come back, and continued to feel that way until Monday night, when Roy calls with some second thoughts. It was the second U-turn he made that week.
A night later, Tommie Gorman announces on RTE television that Roy has retired from international football and while that appeared to be that, I wasn’t giving up on it. Sure enough, a chance meeting later that summer in Croke Park, at the opening ceremony for the Special Olympics, led to a brief chat.
“You’re doing well,” he said. “You could get out of the group.”
“We’d have a better chance if you put your boots on again,” I replied.
“Well, give me a call.”
“It’s easier getting an audience with the Pope,” I joke.
But I do call.
And he answers.
Within a year, he’s available for us again.
And I’m thrilled.
His first day back, there’s an immediate difference. The intensity in training rises by about 10 to 15 per cent, everyone trying that little bit harder, everyone’s passing that bit sharper.
I notice it again in September. This time he is troubled by a rib injury — and hasn’t been able to play, or train, in over two weeks when he arrives into camp just prior to our qualifier against Switzerland.
Training begins, and without saying a word, everyone’s level of commitment increases.
“Good, this is really good,” I say to myself.
And for the 18 months or so that we work together, it is good. There is a definite aura around him and yet in the dressing room, he has a quiet presence. I imagine, with all the controversy that had occurred in Saipan, he just wanted to create a comfortable environment with everyone again. Between the pair of us, there is an openness. Prior to that Switzerland match, a 1-1 draw, we did a video session highlighting the threat Hakan Yakin posed, showing clips of his movement and signalling how important it was to reduce his influence.
Minutes later, Roy came over to me. “Don’t worry about that fella,” he said to me. “I’ll nail him for you.”
As soon as I heard that, I smiled. “Great,” I said to Chris Hughton, my assistant. “This is why I wanted him back.”
But we were far from great in that first half. Roy, in his anxiety to do well on his first competitive game for his country in nearly three years, is over adventurous. All our midfielders were. And Hakan is causing havoc in the space left behind.
So when half-time comes, it is the first issue I address. And when I look back at that game from the distance of 12 years, it’s interesting that even Roy — one of the best players the world knew — needed specific, positional information and tactical advice.
And now he is the one delivering the advice. As a player, from the dealings I had with him, I considered him a quiet man, who led more by actions than words. Still, the few times he did speak, he had an impact.
In a World Cup qualifier against the Faroe Islands, just days after we’d drawn 2-2 at home to Israel, we were scoreless at half-time and looking a little nervous. Roy looked around the dressing room. “It’s not Brazil we’re up against lads,” he said. “We’ll take them.”
And we did, largely because we had better quality in our side, but partially because he delivered the right message at the right time.
But can you say he did the same last week? It is 2016 not 2005 now and he is an assistant manager and no longer a player who had an air of self-confidence and comfort within his own skin. The aura remains. He still speaks with authority and while I admire his ability to acknowledge his own managerial mistakes, to recognise that some of the decisions he has made were wrong ones, I wonder if he’ll react that way to what he said last Wednesday, the day after the Belarus friendly, when he cut loose at the players, saying some of those lads were “lucky to be on the flight”.
What prompted those comments? Well, if there is one thing about Roy, it is that he is an extremely intelligent man, albeit one who can be quite caustic with his words.
No doubt on Wednesday, after assessing the performance from the night before, he said to himself. “We need to put a few guys in their place here.”
So he cut loose, deliberately planning to shake anyone out of whatever complacency may have set in, consciously letting the players know that if their concentration levels, their quality, or their touch, dips — then there will be trouble against the Swedes, Belgians and Italians.
Is this why Martin O’Neill picked him to be his number two? Possibly it was. As a manager, you normally go for an assistant who brings different qualities to the table than you. For me, that was Chris Hughton. While I enjoyed working on the tactical side of things, doing shape work and creating images of how the opposition would perform, Chris, an experienced Premier League coach at the time, and a top-class manager now, was superb at putting on sessions that challenged the players and kept them on edge.
With Roy and Martin — men with such differing personalities — I’m not sure if there is a good cop/bad cop dynamic going on. And yet I have no doubt Roy has had an impact in terms of the group. Certainly his comments last Wednesday did, although quite why he needed to personalise things with Aiden McGeady, saying his erratic performance from Tuesday’s game was in keeping with his career, is a question only Roy can answer. He will argue he was simply being honest.
I felt he was out of order.
You wonder now how Martin and the players feel about what he said because up until now he has toed the party line, has been totally supportive of Martin has never said anything as critical as this about the players, since he became assistant manager.
His purpose, no doubt, was to shake things up a bit. Has he gone too far, though? Will his words have a negative impact on team morale?
Only time will tell.